Note: this review doesn’t completely fall in with what I said in my last post, because I wrote it before I wrote that one. This post was written to be a video, and I had all the footage collected and shit, but then I cancelled the videos altogether (for now). I haven’t had time to play and review another ARPG though, between consuming a fuckload of editorials/reviews and playing awesome indie platformers.
On that note, I said in my last post that I haven’t found anyone doing heavy-duty analysis of individual games on a regular basis. Well, now I have. Errant Signal is an amazing blog with some excellent and lengthy videos, many of which analyze individual games. Unfortunately, it’s almost all games which I haven’t played, since like just about every other game’s journalist, he focuses on AAA games and indie games intermittently. As you may gather from my posts, I focus strangely on A/AA games and genre titles.
Anyway, here’s my review of Swordcraft Story.
Had I played Summon Night: Swordcraft Story when I was thirteen or fourteen, I’m sure it would’ve been among my favorite games. Back then I played more Game Boy Advanced than any other console. I was really into shounen anime and JRPGs, and would’ve loved a game that I could beat in just over ten or eleven hours, instead of the longer Gamecube and PS2 RPGs that could never hold my attention through to the end.
Even though I’ve never played a Summon Night game before this one, Swordcraft Story gives me a faint sense of nostalgia. I wasn’t a gamer in the Super Nintendo era, but I played a hell of a lot of Game Boy Advanced, and even though the graphical qualities of both systems are similar, there’s a huge difference in the atmosphere of RPGs for those consoles. GBA games tend to be brighter, lighter, and somehow more innocent and easy. Whereas Super Nintendo games appealed to a generation of gamers who dedicated countless hours in front of the TV playing their favorite games, GBA games were more about carrying a game around that you could snap on, play for twenty minutes, snap off, and continue your day.
Swordcraft Story is a game that seems purposely designed for people that take public transit to school, work, or wherever. It’s a game that can be easily and satisfyingly digested in bite-sized chunks. It’s for the RPG enthusiast on the go—something to play when you’ve got twenty minutes before class, which wouldn’t be enough time to do anything in Zelda or Final Fantasy, but is just enough time to complete a portion of Swordcraft Story.
It’s almost unfortunate that I ended up playing this game under entirely different circumstances than what it’s perfect for. These days I’m Not Employed, being Educated, nor in Training, so I do all my gaming in concentrated giant bursts, which Swordcraft Story isn’t built for.
The game is structured around a ten-day period over which it takes place. Each day follows a reliable formula which makes it predictable in a good way, in that you know how long it’ll take to get things done, and can plan your game time around that, which is ideal for an on-the-go game.
Most of Swordcraft Story takes place in just one town and one dungeon, which is an interesting choice that could break the game for some. If you like RPGs to be sprawling adventures, then this game isn’t for you. The approach is like an incredibly condensed take on the Persona games. Every day, the dialog for each NPC in town changes, and new things appear or disappear depending on the day. If you start off each day by talking to everyone in town, as I did, then you’ll engage in a bunch of really tiny mini-narratives, some of which are quite entertaining thanks to Atlus’ often-lauded localization job.
These mini-narratives are of little or no consequence on the plot and only serve to endear you to the town enough that being there so often stays somewhat fresh and interesting. From the perspective of this game as bite-sized, easy entertainment, I think it works quite well, but it’s nothing that you’ll be recalling years down the line.
Therein lies the nature of this game as a whole. It’s a forgettable thing, only thought about in the time you spent playing it, and only remembered as something enjoyable, but unremarkable. It’s strange in that way, because I honestly could see myself playing through this game more than once, or at least playing its sequel, just because it would be so easy to take to school or work and play in my free time, and I’d end up spending as much time with the game, enjoying it, as I would spend playing another game that I actually care about.
Over the course of playing the game for this review, I got the chance to experience its weakness in a profound way, because after playing it in little bits for three days, I got distracted and put it down for the three days following. In those three days, I played four hours of Ocarina of Time, started up Vagrant Story, did a hell of a lot of reading (mostly about Zelda), and made a comedy video with my friends. When I finally got back to Swordcraft Story, I’d mostly forgotten about anything in the game which had been holding my attention before. It didn’t take me long to get into the swing of things and play through another day, helped by just how inoffensive and easy the game is, but had i put it on hold for an entire week, I probably never would’ve gotten around to finishing it.
The plot of Swordcraft Story plays out like an iyashikei anime series. This is a hard concept to explain to someone who hasn’t seen one of these shows, but the idea is that they create a relaxing and soothing atmosphere for the viewer. Usually, these shows feature a small cast of cute girls doing cute or fun things, usually with a light comedy element and often with slight lesbian undertones. The main themes in these shows are always of growing up, becoming stronger at a very relaxed pace, and moving into adulthood. Swordcraft Story has all of these things.
That is to say, it has all of these things if you play as a girl. At the beginning of the game, you get to chose to play a male or a female, and the story changes accordingly. This is interesting to me because the Summon Night series is known for the fact that it’s about the relationships between characters more than anything else, borrowing elements from visual novels. While I can’t speak for the other Summon Night games, I definitely think Swordcraft Story is aimed at a younger, teenaged audience, or at least tries to carry a cuter and more innocent tone than the more heavy romantic or sexual elements of full-blown dating sims. It isn’t absent of romance, but the romantic and sexual tension is kept to an absolute minimum.
What is the difference between choosing the boy or the girl? I’m not sure, but I imagine it’s basically like the difference between whether you’re a fan of Negima or Hidamari Sketch. I can’t even be sure though, because besides there being two protagonists, there are also four different version of the protagonist’s summon spirit, which is a sort of sidekick on their adventure. Your summon spirit is determined by some questions that you answer early in the game, and it’s interesting because the summon spirit, while not directly involved in the plot, has a lot of dialog, and colors the whole tone of the game.
I guess you could say that there’s a lot of replay value to Swordcraft Story, especially if you really enjoy the dialog. Again, with the game being so unobtrusive and easy to play on the go, I can see these changes being a great way to mix it up if you were to pick up the game a second time a year later and end up experiencing it in a totally different way.
Sadly, I think this game’s variety of choices ends up cheapening each of them in the grand scheme of things, because they don’t effect the way the story plays out, and said story is so simple and short anyways that there’s no time for the characters to really grow on you, or for anything too impressive to happen.
At the end of each day, of which there are some ten total (it doesn’t ever tell you what day you’re on, which gets confusing), you get the choice to spend the night with one of the other characters. “Spending the night” in this case really means a thirty-second conversation with the character in whatever place they like to hang out. You start with two characters to chose from and end up with five or six, but these scenes never really amount to anything.
I chose to spend every night with my main rival character, Sanary, a tsundere archetype who at first seemed to be slightly gay for my character. However, each night, our friendship barely even deepened, and we usually didn’t have much of interest to talk about. I ended up being disappointed with these scenes and not understanding the point of even talking to Sanary here when she got enough face time in the story to begin with. If I play this again, I’ll definitely spend more of my time talking to characters who aren’t in the story as regularly, just for the chance at more original conversations, but if it ends up doing the annoying anime thing where the characters only have one defining personality trait, then I’d just be disappointed again.
The main plot of Swordcraft Story is extremely easy-going, and exactly as entertaining as the dialog allows it to be, not actually netting any interest in the overall plot arc. It begins simply with your character entering a tournament to graduate from a “craftknight” to a “craftlord,” and most of the days in the game end with a tournament battle. Through these battles, your character makes friends with her fellow contestants and learns more about what it means to be a craftlord. Along the way, you also learn about your father, a craftlord and hero who died three years ago, and about whom everyone in the game knows more than you for some reason.
Eventually, the plot goes deeper with some mysteries surrounding the tournament and your father, but it unfolds very slowly, and always feels like a contained and simple story, reflecting the small scale of the game.
With the way Swordcraft Story is structured, the dialog and story progression surrounds the actual dungeon exploring. At the start of each day is a cutscene that establishes what’s going to happen on that day. After that scene, the player gets control, and I usually started by talking to all of the NPCs in town. Often the story required that I talk to someone to get a new sword-crafting ability or perform some action before I’d get a letter telling me whom I’d be fighting in the tournament that day.
Once all of the town activity was done, I’d go down into the Labyrinth, which is the game’s central dungeon. Each day unlocks three or four new floors of the labyrinth, so you might go down to level three on the first day, then find a teleporter leading out, and the next day you’ll be able to go down to floor six, etc. Most of the time, you’re required to play through the new floors, either to encounter events or to collect items which can only be found on certain floors.
After doing whatever you had to do in the dungeon, which is usually gathering materials for a new weapon to forge, you’re allowed to start the next tournament battle. Once you’ve beaten it, the day concludes.
The game plays with this structure enough to keep it interesting, but remains reliable so that you can still be ready to pick it up and play. On several days, once you’ve done the optional talking to NPCs and dungeon crawling, the story will send you to locations outside the main town for events.
These parts are the weirdest thing about the game, because of the fact that there’s several of them, and each one is a completely different area from the main town. However, you visit these places only for the duration of the story missions, and then you never go back to them. I couldn’t understand why the developers would bother creating whole new locations with new enemies, music, and artwork, but not make those parts of the game longer, or allow the player to return regularly.
In the main storyline, you only go down about twenty-five floors of the labyrinth, but there are twenty-five optional floors which you can explore in the endgame. Why couldn’t it have been five additional floors for each of the dungeons in the game? It strikes me as very odd, and it must have struck the developers the same way, since they apparently opened up the world a lot more in the second game.
On the later days, you find yourself going to more new places, fighting more bosses outside the tournament, and reading more story, but strangely it all manages to even out so that all of the days are about the same length. I spent almost exactly one hour on every day, with the exception of day five, on which I spent two.
The reason I took so long on day five is because I went back into the labyrinth from the top floor and made sure I got every item on the way down this time, grinding up experience in the process. As it turns out, that little bit of grinding was enough to overlevel and over-equip me for the rest of the game. Up until that point, I’d died at least once on every boss, sometimes up to four times, and had been spending a lot of my money on potions to make it through the dungeon. After grinding, I bulldozed most of the bosses, and had a good stock of potions to keep me going without needing to make many trips to the store.
I’m glad I did that, because the biggest problem I have with this game is how frustrating it is to die. Every time you die, you get a “game over” screen, and the game resets, so you have to watch the unskippable logos for Flight-Plan, Banpresto, and Atlus again, hating all of them along the way, and finally start the game back at your last save. Since my deaths were always against bosses, this of course meant that I had to watch any pre-boss cutscenes over again. These scenes are mercifully short, but the text moves just slow enough to be frustrating, and there’s no way to speed it up. What with boss fights being relatively brief in this game, the time it takes to get back to the fight is almost equal to the time it takes for the boss to kill you to begin with.
While I only died against bosses, I still find it unforgivable that this game would have such a cumbersome death process without allowing you to save whenever you want. Because of this, I would find myself constantly back-tracking to save points after every cutscene so that if I died, I wouldn’t have to watch all of them over again. Thankfully the save points are fairly convenient, but this only raises the question of why I can’t save whenever I want if it’s not really adding any challenge to the game. There’s a quick-save feature as well, which makes it even more confusing.
The battle system in Swordcraft Story is like a simplified version of one from the Tales series, and I found it very entertaining. The game features five different weapon types, each of which has a standard three-hit combo, a jump slash, and a stab attack. The five weapon types each work differently, with axes being slower and more powerful than swords, spears having a longer reach, knuckles being short-ranged and weak, but fast, and drills having a charge attack that does a lot of damage to the enemy’s weapon, which is useful against bosses.
I tried out all of the weapons, but ended up using swords consistently throughout the game. It fits with the way I play all video games, so I can’t say whether swords are better than other weapons, or I’m just good at using them because they’re what I’m used to.
Combat is structured around the timing of guards and attacks. This can be difficult to figure out at times and easy at others. Most of the bosses can be beaten using similar tactics, but regular enemies can prove more of a challenge as you try to guard against multiple attacks at once.
Adding to this is a mediocre spell system. As your summon spirit levels up, they gain new skills to assist you in battle. Some of them are offensive spells, which I found completely useless, because they rarely did more damage than I could do by attacking, and were cumbersome to use, requiring that you drop your guard and charge for a second before the move activates.
The same rules apply to the buff spells, but those ones are actually useful. The ones I used the most were attack and defense buffs, which were all but necessary in boss fights. The game limits your usage of these, so you have to be careful about using them too many times before the boss and then getting screwed without them. In addition to spells, you can also have your summon spirit use healing items on you. I liked this a lot because it meant no opening menus in the middle of battle.
One more thing you have to worry about is your weapon’s durability, which goes down every time you attack and block. Durability is restored at the end of each fight, but if a weapon breaks before the end of a fight, you’ll have to switch. You can bring three weapons into fights, and they can easily be switched on the go to deal with different enemy types. This is how the game expects to be played, though again, I pretty much used my sword to kill everything.
The one time that durability becomes a real factor is in the tournament battles. In these battles, you can only bring one weapon, and if your weapon breaks, then you lose. This is also true for your opponent, so if you exploit weapon types to break their weapons, then you can win even faster. I lost one fight due to my weapon breaking and won another fight due to breaking the opponents, so the system is definitely an active part of those fights.
Far less interesting than the battle system is the crafting system, which is about as simple as it gets. You learn how to make new weapons either from your teacher or from NPCs throughout the game, and you craft them from materials that you collect. Most of the items that you get in dungeons can be broken down into materials, and in fact are useless for anything else. Weapons and other items can be broken down, too, although most items don’t amount to many materials, and you can get more than enough materials by making sure to collect all of the items in dungeons.
Early on, I diligently crafted every new weapon that I learned about, but at some point, I stopped caring. After my grind-fest, I had enough materials to last me a long time, and almost all of the new sword-crafting techniques are provided by the main story. Since I always used swords anyways, I stopped seeing the need to craft other shit, and eventually forgot about the crafting system almost entirely.
While it’s a little disappointing that I didn’t end up crafting more, what with my character being a Craftknight and all, it doesn’t bother me much because I’ve never cared for crafting in games to begin with.
Reaching the end of this review, let’s talk about the audio, which is both one of the game’s successes and biggest failures.
The success is that the music is excellent and highly addicting. Considering that you spend so much of the game in the central town and dungeon, it was important that the music in these places was great, and I think it was. I’ve seen reviews that praised this game’s music and others that criticized it, though, so I guess it’s a point of contention.
On the flipside, one of the game’s biggest weakness is its lame sound effects. Each time you kill an enemy, there’s a glitch where your next few actions don’t have any sound effects, which totally robs you of the satisfaction of those attacks. It doesn’t help that the death sound is feeble and lame. Slashing sound effects are decent, but don’t have the gravity as better slash sounds like the ones from the Legend of Zelda games. Moreover, your sword only makes a sound effect when it makes contact with an enemy, and doesn’t have its own effect, which is lame. Some of the spells had decent effects, but I didn’t use them very often.
To make up for this, the game at least has excellent sprite animations. My favorite is the unique animation that you get from beating a boss, which made doing so much more satisfying. Swordcraft Story is altogether average-looking for a GBA game in 2003, but at least I thought the character art and sprites were excellent.
That about does it for Summon Night: Swordcraft Story. As of this review, I’m doing away with the “verdict” section that I used in other videos, because the scores felt arbitrary. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed Swordcraft Story, and I can see myself playing it again or possibly playing the sequel sometime in the future, though probably not until I go back to school or get a job.